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Cupid's krewe

They joined the Krewe of Hillsborough as lonely, broken-hearted singles. With a little help from matchmaking pirates, Chris Riotto and Denise Erickson found each other.

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AMY SCHERZER'S DIARY
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By AMY SCHERZER, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published August 23, 2002


TAMPA -- Chris Riotto joined the Krewe of Hillsborough to toss beads, drink beer and make new friends. Denise Erickson just wanted a safe way to meet people and have fun.

Krewe membership got both what they wanted, and more. On June 15, the couple married aboard the Starship Dining Yacht in Garrison Channel, at the foot of the Tampa skyline. Pastor Greg Dumas of Bay Life Church of Brandon witnessed their vows, then called up Chris' sons, Tommy, 13, and Danny, 9, to be united as a family.

Denise, 30, and Chris, 34, danced to their song, I Love the Way You Love Me, during the dinner cruise with 55 guests. Chris had the first letter of each word, ILTWYLM, engraved inside Denise's wedding ring. His ring says "Grow old with me."

Back on shore, krewe mates sent the newlyweds off in Gasparilla style -- aboard the club's 42-foot float, an 18th-century castle. Cars honked and pedestrians waved as the two cruised along Kennedy Boulevard to the airport to begin the honeymoon.

* * *

Back in 1999, Denise's first marriage was crumbling.

She returned to Tampa and moved in with her parents, Bob and Lynn Erickson. Her father, a retired tech sergeant with U.S. Readiness Command, had moved his family to a neighborhood south of Gandy Boulevard when Denise was 10. She attended St. Patrick's Catholic School, Tampa Catholic and the University of Tampa.

Home again, Denise looked for a teaching job. Her search led her to Trinity School for Children on Osborne Avenue, where she now has a classroom of preschoolers.

Chris had gone to work for GTE, now Verizon, right after he graduated from Brandon High School in 1986.

His first marriage had also ended. He adjusted to being single by plunging into the newly formed Krewe of Hillsborough. He was the krewe's official "beer man" and secretary. Next month, he becomes treasurer.

"I wasn't a big Gasparilla fan," Chris says. "I just wanted to start getting out. My self esteem was pretty low after my divorce."

His krewe costume fortified him like a sip from a cup of courage. From the beginning, his new club went for the musketeer look -- black plumed hats, black pants tucked into black boots and laced up shirts.

Chris, a University of Florida football fan, customized his long, black vest with a flashing, fiber-optic Gator, orange and blue.

Women in the krewe, Denise among them, dressed like Old English wenches, with off-the-shoulder blouses, tightly laced bodices and long skirts.

That was how Chris and Denise were dressed for their first encounter.

It took place in Key West at Fantasy Fest on the night before Halloween 1999. Chris had driven down with a truck full of krewe buddies to walk in the parade. Denise arrived with another schoolteacher.

It was a weekend for gawking and craziness.

Chris couldn't resist remarking on Denise's neckline.

"He's flashing his Gator and thinks he's all that," says Denise.

"Oh, I am all that," he snaps back.

Denise blushes when he adds, "My agenda was a little different back then."

* * *

Turns out, Fantasy Fest wasn't the first time Chris noticed Denise. Her bright blue eyes caught his hazel gaze back in July at a krewe meeting at Piccadilly Cafeteria. She sat with Chris Nardelli, one of the founders of the krewe and her friend since sixth grade.

He assumed, wrongly, she was Nardelli's date.

"Nardelli dragged me to this meeting to hear about the krewe," says Denise. "He said, 'Stop moping and get out of the house."'

Denise remembers seeing Chris, too, sitting with the board of directors. She thought he had a great smile.

"But I was not getting involved with anyone. Ever," she says.

Apparently, her krewe cohorts had other ideas.

A week after Fantasy Fest, krewe members met at Fat Jack's, a north Tampa bar, hoping to one-up each other's racy photos.

"First the table was full, then there was just Chris and me," recalled Denise.

Everyone else suddenly had an urge to go play darts. To make conversation, Denise asked to see Chris' pictures.

Embarrassed, Chris divided them into two piles: tame and not-for-Denise-to-see. She told him she appreciated his sensitivity.

Three hours later, they were still talking, "about our lives, our families, our failures," said Denise. They danced to Patsy Cline's Crazy and discovered they both loved to play board games -- Risk for him, Scrabble for her.

Only later did they learn that Nardelli had set them up.

It was not by chance Darts had become so popular.

* * *

As krewe members made plans to march in another Fantasy Fest, Chris made plans to propose. It would be exactly two years since he noted how nicely Denise filled out her costume.

While she packed for Key West, he went to her parent's house seeking permission to marry their daughter.

"Denise actually called me on my cell phone while I was at their house asking," he said.

They left town with another krewe couple, close friends who knew Chris' plan.

Strolling around Mallory Square that night, Chris searched for the right setting. Where was the famous Key West sunset? What should he say?

Prancing around, Denise jumped up on a bench under a stone archway. Chris got the ring out and slipped it on her finger. It took a few minutes for Denise to realize what was happening. Then they were both crying.

"This year at Fantasy Fest," said Chris, "we'll be drinking champagne on that bench."

-- To pass along tips to Amy Scherzer, reach her at 226-3332 or scherzer@sptimes.com.

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